On a typical Sunday, Elizabeth Baptist Church sees about 7,000 parishioners at its five metro Atlanta satellite campuses combined. This Sunday only three worshippers pulled up to the Atlanta location on Cascade Road but were greeted with signage telling them the church opted to hold online services amid the coronavirus pandemic.
That setup could become the new normal as several places of worship across metro Atlanta opted to close sanctuaries and host livestreams either on their website or Facebook.
As of Sunday, there were 99 confirmed cases in Georgia, according to the state’s Department of Public Health, up substantially from the 66 confirmed cases a day earlier when Gov. Brian Kemp declared a state of emergency and urged residents to avoid large public gatherings.
» RELATED: To protect congregations, many Georgia churches will go online
Peering into the camera, Pastor Craig L. Oliver Sr. opened his sermon talking about the coronavirus. The church alerted parishioners Friday of only a livestream for the service. He also noted that churches aren’t reacting out of fear, but rather a concern for worshippers’ health.
“It’s a very interesting experience, of course, because I’m used to the call-and-response dynamic,” he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, speaking from the Cascade Road church. “If I say something, I usually get an ‘amen’ or a verbal response. That is one of the big elements that is different.”
Oliver prerecorded the sermon and engaged with worshippers through the chat connected to the livestream on the church’s website. He was at the church Sunday in case there were any hiccups with the livestream.
While the 91-year-old church regularly holds livestreams, Oliver, who was initially hesitant to shut down operations, said church leaders met two weeks ago to discuss what they need to have in place. Hesitation went out the window after the number of cases grew in Georgia and Kemp urged residents to stay home.
“We’re in a very unique space and place. I don’t think we’ve seen anything like this in our lifetime,” Oliver said. “And with the element of our unknown as it relates to the virus, it was prudent to err on the side of caution and encourage them to stay at home.”
» RELATED: Gov. Kemp declares public health emergency
At First United Methodist Church of Marietta, the Rev. Julie Boone told online worshippers what the church is doing to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus and prayed for the health care industry and those who are affected by it.
While speaking to empty pews was slightly awkward, Boone said online parishioners were receptive.
“We got emails and texts from the congregation, so people were engaged and the response was positive,” she said.
Sunday’s sermon, delivered by the Rev. Lori Ethridge, focused on the online conversations around social distancing and how people can still be engaged with others who may be in need.
“It was more don’t be fearful of continuing to minister even though we’re keeping a social distance. There are still ways to communicate,” Ethridge said, adding she’s thankful the congregation had the technology to do it.
Unlike Elizabeth and First UMC, The Refreshing Place Ministries in Decatur hadn’t had livestreams, but Pastor Reayman Price said parishioners were receptive. A church that normally sees 200 people received more than 500 views on its first livestream.
“I kind of wanted to minister to people and let them know not to be afraid,” Price said. “You can’t bombard yourself with information about coronavirus to the point where it dilutes what God is saying. Yes, we need to be informed, but don’t bombard yourself with it because it’s causing panic and fear.”
The church plans to continue its livestream services until April and will assess from there.
The church livestream from Free Chapel in Gainesville was in a bigger spotlight after President Donald Trump tweeted on Saturday that he'd be watching.
Pastor Jentezen Franklin began the service by reading Trump’s proclamation that March 15 was being observed as a National Day of Prayer. After sharing biblical references from Trump, Franklin smiled and told his online audience, “I tell you, I believe the president’s gonna preach a better message than I am today.”
Franklin discussed the realities of the coronavirus threat while also acknowledging the protective power of prayer and praise.
“The fear is very real to many of you,” Franklin said in his sermon about an emotion blanketing much of the nation.
He said people should choose faith over fear. “Our God is bigger than the coronavirus.”
Although parishioners didn’t attend, Franklin wasn’t alone on stage at the popular megachurch. He noted that the worship team and choir had joined him for the live broadcast. The livestream available via Free Chapel’s YouTube channel already had more than 53,000 views by mid-afternoon.
» RELATED: Georgia pastor said he was honored for Trump to watch service online
For some worshippers, the online church service was just as engaging as in-person worship.
Ann Stuart Pearce and her wife were brought to tears as they sang the first hymn during online service for All Saint’s Episcopal Church in Atlanta in their pajamas in their home office. Pearce said the service brought the congregation closer with many communicating via the chat on the church’s Facebook livestream.
“They were tears of joy, knowing we could still be a community even though we weren’t present in-person,” she said.
Several churches are adhering to a strict two-week online-only service. Beyond that, church leaders are following news reports and updates to plan accordingly.
As for how long they will continue with livestream services: “That is the unknown,” said Elizabeth Baptist’s Oliver. “It really depends on the extent of the crisis we are facing.”
Some churches hadn’t ruled out in-person services yet.
At the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Atlanta, about 40 worshippers gathered to celebrate the 11 a.m. Mass, which was also livestreamed on the Catholic church’s Facebook page.
On most Sundays, each pew is filled. But because of this Sunday’s sparse attendance, parishioners had no trouble practicing “social distancing,” with some sitting alone in their own pews.
“Welcome to the 4 o’clock Mass,” one of the ushers joked, referring to the Saturday afternoon service, which normally isn’t as crowded as the two Sunday Masses.
For those who gathered at the church, this Sunday was remarkably different.
Normally, at the beginning of the service, parishioners greet one another with a handshake. But with the coronavirus, friendly nods had to suffice.
When it came time to offer each the sign of peace, Monsignor Henry Gracz encouraged everyone to place their right hand over their heart – replacing the handshake that normally comes with “peace be with you.”
» RELATED: COMPLETE COVERAGE: Coronavirus in Georgia
At Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Atlanta, the Rev. Jeffery Ott decided not to hold a Mass on Saturday and Sunday this past weekend. Instead, he led a liturgy of the word with prayer and Scripture readings without parishioners taking communion.
The one service, at 10:30 a.m. was also streamed, with upwards of 1,000 people viewing at one point, which fluctuated throughout the service.
He hasn’t decided whether Mass will be held in the coming week.
“We’re concerned about our parishioners’ health and well-being and the health and well-being of our visitors and friends,” Ott said. “From what I know of the coronavirus now, it’s important that we have some distance from each other and avoid social gatherings so we don’t spread the disease.”
He said about 70 percent of Lourdes members are older or have underlying health conditions that put them at greater risk.
In Austell at the 10:30 service at Destiny World Church, Pastor Wilbur Purvis III told the 200 gathered: “We’re not shaking hands today, we are doing elbow bumps. God still gets the praise.”
His sermon was on the coronavirus and his topic was how to keep cool in a crisis — taking the lesson from Paul being taken to Rome and the ship running aground.
The church also thought of those in need because of the toll from the coronavirus. The congregation took a special offering to adopt a local apartment complex in order to help provide children with lunch the next two weeks while schools are closed.
“Don’t let coronavirus steal your praise,” Purvis reminded the parishioners.
AJC staffers Mark Waligore, Curtis Compton, Shelia Poole and Ron Sirmans contributed to this article.